Professionals in Essex have slashed the time it takes to compile care proceedings assessments yet still secure vital information about children and parents
When the Public Law Outline was introduced in April 2008 the aim was to reduce the need for care proceedings and to speed up those that were necessary.
Essex Council children’s services set a target to reduce pre-proceeding assessments from 12 weeks to six. But social workers feared this would not give them enough time to form in-depth opinions on parenting abilities.
These worries were observed by Sara Barratt, a consultant family psychotherapist to family centres in Essex.
“I was working with the Writtle Wick Family Centre in Chelmsford and I could see how concerned they were about how to meet the deadlines,” she says.
Historically, parenting assessments were undertaken by lone practitioners through home visits and occasional meetings with different family members to address specific concerns raised in the referral.
But, after reviewing the group approach to family therapy devised by the Marlborough Family Service, Barratt suggested it could be incorporated into a public law outline assessment model.
Deborah Ounan, manager of the Writtle Wick Centre, was enthusiastic. She says: “If we had to assess quicker then grouping staff and clients together to deliver a more holistic package made sense.”
It wasn’t easy. Staff were sceptical that it would work and gathering families together on the same day was difficult because most of the children were in scattered foster placements.
But the staff have now developed and run a programme with six to eight families at a time. As well as the work carried out in a home and individually, the families attend one group day at the centre each week. The key worker for each family is present and the day is largely educational with activities that parents and children undertake both together and separately.
So positive has been the feedback from families that the number of group days has been extended from four to six.
“We also used to do the separate activities in the morning and bring the parents and children together at the end of the day,” Ounan says. “But one of the children said she would prefer to be with her mum in the morning, when they first saw each other. We thought it was a fair point so we changed the structure of the days.”
Separating the parents and children for part of the day allows social workers to talk to parents about issues such as domestic violence, boundary setting and abuse.
“You tend to see much more on a group day then you do on a home visit,” she says. “You hear things that the parents say to each other because their guard is down a bit. You also see how differently the children behave around their parents compared with how they act with their peers.”
All this has helped social workers at the centre feel more confident about the reports they make and Ounan more confident in signing them off.
“At the end of the day we all debrief and some healthy debates go on,” she says. “It takes the pressure off to know that someone else has observed the things you have and sometimes the things that you may not have.”
More than 20 families have completed the programme so far. Court reports are being completed in six rather than 12 weeks but la wyers have indicated they are satisfied the reports are as comprehensive as those previously submitted.
Ounan and Barratt agree there is still more to be done, particularly with service users with mental health problems.
Some parents with manic depression, and even schizophrenia, have responded well, but others have had to be withdrawn from the groups, Ounan admits.
But overall “we all now believe it is a better way of doing things”, she says.
What service users say
- A father: “It was good to meet other parents going through similar things. The children enjoyed meeting other children; the individual sessions were useful to ask questions and clarify things if I was unsure.”
- A mother: “I’m calmer. You don’t realise that what you are doing isn’t right. I have had a terrible time and bad things happened to me with my mum. But I am now more aware of itI am trying to be a better person and praising [her child] more.”
- A mother with mental health problems: “I disliked some of the topics and sharing feelings with others. But I learned a lot, learned to listen to my child more, learned more about myself and my child’s needs but felt that being in a group was not good.”
Public law outline
The PLO replaced the protocol for judicial case management in public law Children Act cases. To reduce pressure on the family court system councils are expected to do more work before a case gets to court, including kinship and residential assessments.
This article is published in the 10 December 2009 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline All is revealed in half the time